August 2014 Feature

How Would Zagat Rate Your Partner Journey?

by Hobart Swan

Heather K. MargolisThere was a time, coinciding with a stronger economy, when all a vendor had to do to onboard channel partners was glance in their direction. Those days are disappearing like scenery in the rear view mirror. Equipped with new search tools, a more business-savvy point of view, and a stronger relationship with their end-customer, channel partners have become more discriminating. To attract and retain the best partners, a vendor needs to think more like a restaurant or hotel and make sure they get good “reviews” from the channel.

Who better to help us understand this new relationship between vendors and partners than Heather K. Margolis, founder and president of Channel Maven Consulting? Earlier in her career, Margolis managed channel programs and channel marketing for tech companies such as Egenera, EMC, EqualLogic, and Dell. Today, she and her team help channel organizations build effective channel enablement programs, market to partners driving stronger relationships, and enable vendors to help partners market to the end-customer through social and traditional media.

To describe the evolving journey a partners takes when embarking on any and all channel resources or programs, Margolis uses the term channel partner journey or partner experience.

Can you elaborate on your vision of the partner journey and how to improve it?

The partner journey is made up of every experience a partner has with a vendor—whether they’re signing up to become a new partner, logging into the portal for the first time or the five hundredth time, or experiencing any other vendor-created resources via an event, a marketing automation tool, or an MDF tool.

So, it’s the lifecycle from initial engagement and recruiting to on-going revenue growth?

I think it’s the impression partners develop about a vendor over that lifecycle—whether at a particular moment or from their overall experience of the vendor. It’s like when you travel to another country: every restaurant, every hotel, every scenic destination you visit leaves an impression on you—as does the entire trip.

But a single vendor can have hundreds or even thousands of channel partners. How, in this lean age, can channel organizations possibly hope to make a positive impression on every one of them?

It’s not easy. There is a definitely a challenge on the vendor side to ensure that every experience is as positive as possible. That means getting partner-facing teams on the same page, having resources that make life easier instead of adding complexity, and ensuring that requirements aren’t put on partners that detract from their overall business goals.

In the past, I have worked with companies that used Excel spreadsheets to track MDF. Whenever a partner asked about their MDF balance or tried to get a program approved, we had one person internally who managed the spreadsheet and would have to go searching through her massive Excel file. That process consumed a lot of staff time and frustrated the partner, not to mention that if she was on vacation, we were out of luck. New automated MDF solutions reduce the amount of vendor staff time—and partner pain—it takes to manage that part of the relationship. Advancements in portal design and functionality, marketing automation, and other platforms are enabling channel organizations to run much more efficiently.

Isn’t there a danger that solely depending on technology will make the relationships feel impersonal?

I’ve always been about integrating the technology with a personal touch. There are so many ways you can use technology to connect with partners on a human level—even if you have thousands of partners. For instance, some companies are posting executive videos on their blogs to give partners an inside look at the company. It’s a chance for the vendor to demonstrate that, from the executive level on down, it really values its partner relationships.

And then there are the executives themselves. We work with one company whose head of the global channel marketing used to be on the partner side. The first time I spoke with him, I was immediately impressed by how passionate and knowledgeable he was about partners and how well he understood what they go through—because he’d been in their shoes before.

That’s true of you too, right? You’ve been on both the vendor side and the partner side. What did you learn from being on both sides?

Yes. On the partner side I learned there is a lot to navigate and if you don’t take advantage of all the resources then you’re missing out. On the vendor side I learned that the worst thing you can do is to make assumptions about what partners want. One time we created a very large, overarching platform, and when we presented it to a group of partners we were so proud of ourselves. Until our partners said, “That’s great. But it’s not what we need and we’re not going to use it.” And we had spent close to a million dollars on it.

Now we always encourage our vendor clients at Channel Maven Consulting to talk to at least a handful of partners before creating a program and ask “Is this something that would be helpful to you? Is it something you would use? Are we in line with your business goals.”

What do you think vendors should do to make sure they’re addressing real, instead of imagined, needs?

The first thing vendors need to do is stay in touch with their partners. Executives should make sure they and the channel account manager attend at least one channel partner meeting per quarter. Ask the partners what they need to help their business grow, what they like about partnering with you—and what they wish was different.

Should they also ask consultants?

I’m always happy to have a conversation with a vendor to tell them what we’re hearing. We do a lot of one-to-one partner marketing concierge engagements, so my team is dealing with anywhere from 10 to a 100 partners at any given time. We can just pick up the phone and say, “Hey, this company wants to run a program like this. Is that something you would ever use?”

The other thing that I suggest is doing unbiased assessments. We’re doing an engagement right now where a vendor has given us log-ins to their partner portal. We’re using the portal. We’re using the marketing automation tool. We’re using the MDF platform. And we’re able to provide a partner perspective on these tools that can be difficult for vendors to obtain on their own.

How do you get past the problem of trying to please all of the people all of the time?

Juliann Grant

How do you resolve the conflict between making sure all of your partners have a “Zagat Top-Rated Experience” and the 80/20 rule? At the end of the day, 20 percent of your partners are going to do 80 percent of your business. Isn’t a vendor’s first priority to dig in and identify the partners that are going to give the most lift for the investment? Isn’t that where vendors should focus their energy?

That’s the on-going thesis and I think it’s generally accurate. But I also think that things are changing. Just below that 20 percent, there’s another 10 or 20 percent of partners ready to grow, ready to sell more with you and less with other vendors. If you ignore that group of partners, you’re telling them to go do business with somebody else.

I think that in times past, vendors looked at onboarding partners the way we look at buying a car: you choose the one you want, and it’s yours. But with the playing field being more level now, the process is more like dating. Vendors want the best partners; partners want the best vendors. Both sides are free to choose. The tables have turned a bit and now it’s time for vendors to get a lot better at wooing their prospective partners.

Things are so fluid now in the channel. Partners that seem to be underperforming one day can become the stars of tomorrow.

That’s right. Vendors can no longer look at past experience as an indicator of future performance. Partners that have been in business for decades can create a lot of revenue. But so can those that have just started out. In fact, with technology changing so fast, more agile partners may have a better handle on emerging technologies.

Vendors need to get to know as many partners as they can, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and use technology to efficiently provide them with access to the resources, tools, and people they need to succeed.

But of all the things vendors can do to attract and retain the best partners, I think the most important is to ensure that all of their programs and resources provide the partners with a positive “partner journey.”